TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban had a feeling that it was going to be a thrill-a-minute last season on defense, particularly in the secondary.
Unfortunately for the Crimson Tide, he was right.
They went into the season with only one guy in the defensive backfield, safety Mark Barron, who’d ever played any meaningful snaps in the SEC.
It was a recipe for the kind of breakdowns that cost Alabama in all three of its losses.
“Most of what happened were critical errors, guys not doing what they were supposed to and not being where they were supposed to be,” Saban said. “Now, we had nine new starters, a freshman linebacker and a freshman corner. Hopefully, we’ll be better because of the experience that we gained.”
Alabama’s final defensive numbers last season were far from shabby. In fact, the Crimson Tide tied for third nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 13.5 points per game.
They only gave up more than 13 points three times all season, but it occurred in all three of their losses -- 35-21 to South Carolina, 24-21 to LSU and 28-27 to Auburn.
“We averaged giving up 13 for the year, which was in the top 5 in the country,” Saban said. “But you’ve got to be able to play that way all the time.”
It wasn’t all on the secondary, either. Alabama’s pass-rush wasn’t what it had been, and senior jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw said there was an overall lack of a killer instinct.
“The mental errors killed us,” Upshaw said. “I’m not singling anybody out, because it was on all of us. We’d have a mental error here and a mental error there. This year, we’re coming in and getting rid of those mistakes, because we plan on being a dominating defense again for all four quarters.”
Even though Saban suspended senior Robby Green on Monday, and it’s iffy whether Green will be back, Saban feels much better about his secondary rotation than he did a year ago.
He knew it was a talented group last season, but there’s no substitute for experience in the defensive backfield.
Saban said there will be fierce competition at cornerback this spring. Junior Dre Kirkpatrick looks like he’s turned the corner from a maturity standpoint, and senior DeQuan Menzie has a chance to be the best of the group.
“I see a big difference in Menzie, who now knows what he’s doing,” Saban said “I felt like last year, had he not had the Achilles injury that limited his practice in fall camp, that he would have been one of our starting corners. But we decided to not play him at corner and just play him at star as the nickel guy. That limited his reps, but it allowed him to learn something and contribute. He went through the whole season last year and didn’t hardly play any corner. I thought the few plays that he did play it, that he would be one of our best guys.”
Sophomore Dee Milliner will also benefit greatly by playing so extensively last season as a true freshman.
“I thought Milliner toward the end of the season became a pretty good player,” Saban said. “He made a few mistakes, but from a tackling standpoint, he got better. He’s got really good ball judgment, and he’s tough.”
Alabama tied for the SEC lead with 22 interceptions last season, but managed to recover an SEC-low four fumbles.
“We were kind of an odd team,” Saban said. “We were one of the highest teams in interceptions and one of the lowest in causing fumbles. Turnovers and negative plays are going to be big, and not giving up big plays. We have a few more guys who can rush. Alex Watkins is one. We’re going to have more guys like that, I think, even though we don’t have a dominant guy like Marcell Dareus. But we have more combination of those guys, which should help us be a better pass-rushing team.”
One guy the Crimson Tide won’t have this season is nose guard Kerry Murphy, who’s expected to go on medical scholarship because of chronic knee problems.